ADVICE FOR CARERS
What happens when young people go missing from foster care?
At a glance
- Reasons young people in foster care might go missing
- How common is it for a young person to go missing from foster care?
- What happens when a young person does go missing from foster care?
- How to respond to a young person when they return
- Responding to the child’s emotional position upon their return
- How we support carers looking after young people in care
One of the most common fears among foster carers is that their young person might go missing from foster care.
Carers often talk about this fear in two parts:
- They worry that the young person may be in harm’s way, is not safe and is not able to access the support they need during a moment that matters.
- They worry that, as carers, they might not have followed a process correctly, could be blamed for what happens to the young person, and that the young person will not be returned to their care.
While this is a completely understandable fear, it’s worth noting here that while young people can go missing from care, there’s almost always a good outcome. All of Lika’s young people who have ever been classified as missing have always returned home.
In this article, we’ll talk about why young people go missing, what happens when a young person goes missing from foster care, and what happens when the young person returns home.
Ultimately, young people are in foster care because it’s not safe for them to remain with their birth family. They will bring with them their experiences of trauma, which can significantly impact whether they feel safe enough to want to emotionally connect with their carer and remain in a place of safety.
A young person’s impression of what is safe and what their foster carer understands to be safe can often differ.
Here are some reasons a looked-after young person might go missing:
- Criminal and/or sexual exploitation (they have been groomed by individuals or groups who offer stability, acceptance, financial reward, and protection)
- Feeling disconnected from their foster carers
- A belief that if they continue to go missing it might lead to reunification with their birth family
- Mental health challenges (which can lead to young people feeling disconnected from their carers and home)
- Drug misuse
- Peer influence
- Feeling drawn to spend time with their birth family, often out of a sense of loyalty to them
- Not being used to curfews or having their whereabouts monitored
- Being unhappy about being in care and a feeling they would rather be anywhere else
- They’re generally more “adult” in their behaviour as they have always needed to look after themselves.
It is not uncommon for young people in foster care to go missing. According to data from Missing People, a UK charity that reunites missing people with their loved ones, one in 10 looked-after children goes missing from care. For young people who are not in care, the statistic is one in 200.
In 2020, 48 per cent of looked-after children who identified as having been exploited went missing. On average, each of those children went missing 10.6 times in a year.
Foster carers often worry that they may need to look after a young person who has regular missing episodes.
At Lika we have a good understanding of our foster carers’ skills and ambitions and we understand that, for some foster carers, missing episodes can create intolerable anxiety and distress.
If children have a history of missing episodes, we only place them with foster carers who feel prepared and experienced and have a good sense of what to expect. This is a part of our careful matching process.
In 2023 Ofsted commended Lika’s robust matching of children and carers, which it said “results in the expert matching of foster carers who are skilled in meeting the identified needs of children.”
When a young person in Lika’s care goes missing, we have a clear plan to support carers to manage the situation safely and as a team. Foster carers should never feel that the responsibility for a young person going missing and returning home sits only with them. Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility and Lika, the Local Authority and the police all have regulated oversight when it comes to missing episodes.
There is an established process for what happens when a young person goes missing from foster care.
- The first thing a foster carer needs to do is try to establish whether the young person is actually missing or has been delayed for some reason.
- Call the young person, ask where they are and when they will be home. If they are refusing to come home, ask them to share the address with you of where they are. If they state they are at a friend’s house, ask to speak with the friend’s parents to verify the child’s whereabouts and that there is adult supervision.
- If the young person doesn’t pick up the phone or is vague about their whereabouts, foster carers can telephone known friends or their parents or, if circumstances allow, visit known ‘haunts’.
- If a foster carer is unable to establish contact with the young person, or if it’s felt the information shared is inaccurate (i.e., the postcode doesn’t exist) it is best practice to go out and look for the young person.
- If the foster carer’s circumstances prevent them from being able to go and look for the child (i.e., you are a single carer/parent and have other young children who cannot be left unattended at home) ask people in your support network to help. They could look after the children in your home whilst you are looking for the foster child or, equally, if they know the child they could go out and look for them.
- We advise that foster carers must not take risks or jeopardise their own safety, or the safety of any young person.
- We ask foster carers to record all of their efforts clearly in the daily log.
- If carers are making continuous efforts but still don’t know where the child is, and you are concerned as it is past the time they usually get home, the young person will need to be messaged to inform them they will have to be reported missing. This can often prompt them to get in touch about their whereabouts.
Foster carers need to contact Lika’s out-of-hours team (who are available 24/7) to report if they feel a young person is missing or not contactable. This will start a missing person process, involving the young person’s placement Local Authority and the police.
Lika supports carers clearly and throughout this entire process, so they’re never alone.
Lika’s best practices are informed by missing from care protocols developed by the police, safeguarding board and Local Authorities, as well as research from leading missing person charities that specialise in helping young people who are vulnerable to exploitation.
Above all else the child must be made to feel safe and welcome on their return. They will be experiencing a mixture of feelings and attitudes—from feeling remorseful, scared and upset, to being belligerent and angry.
As a foster carer you will have to be prepared for any response from the child and need to recognise that any anger or defensiveness is part of a pattern of behaviour not to be drawn into.
If the child has experienced people not caring for them and finding them a ‘burden’— or worse, gets an angry or upset response to their return—this may lead them to believe that their carer doesn’t care for them but is instead annoyed and irritated by them. This may not be your intention, but you must be aware that children with trauma will understand your reaction through the prism of their own experiences of abuse or neglect.
The key thing is that the child is safe and has returned, so they need to feel welcome and know that your home is a good place to be. No matter how great the urge, foster carers must not be punitive when dealing with a young person who has returned from being missing.
When a young person returns after being missing, here are some things to consider:<
- Does the young person need you to be emotionally close to them, offer them a hug or other emotional reassurance?>
- Do they want to be left alone for some time before this?
- Do they want you to ask them about how they are or where they’ve been? Do they just want a hug and no words?
- Discuss these responses with the child. How would they like to be cared for in these circumstances?
- You should check that the young person is well and has no injuries, and they may need to bathe and have a change of clothing. Medical attention should be recorded and attended to without delay.
Here are a few questions that can assist foster carers to enquire about the absconding behaviour in a way that might feel different to the young person, compared to previous professional reactions:
- How would you name absconding differently? Is it running away or is there a different meaning I/we’re not understanding as your carer/s?
- If your feet could talk, whilst they were running, what would they say to me?
- If you were to run away again, and I/we have to look for you, and make sure you’re safe, how would you want this to happen?
- If I/we have to call you/your family/the police, how do you think we should go about this?
- I’m curious. Is there anything going on in our home right now that makes you want to run away?
- What do you think I/we could do as your carer/s that might encourage you not to run away?
- Do you have any advice for me/us about how we could work better together to keep you safe?
- What’s not being talked about that you think we should know about?
- What is the first thing you feel we could do differently that might help us all get along better?
- Is there one thing that I do in relation to you running away that you would like me to think about changing?
Being a Lika foster carer means receiving specialised and consistent support from our expert team of professionals.
Your support will include:
- One to four weekly supervisions with your supervising social worker to talk through and understand the needs of your young person
- 24/7 out-of-hours access to one of the Lika team, so you’re never unsupported if things feel difficult
- Access to Lika’s team of skilled and knowledgeable Systemic Psychotherapist Consultants and Systemic Social Work Practitioners, who are never stuck for ideas on how to support
- Virtual monthly foster carers support meeting, led and chaired by experienced foster carers
- Virtual fortnightly Therapeutic Family Consultations, facilitated by one of our psychotherapists and open to all our agency’s foster carers
- Life coaching for foster children, birth children and foster carers
- Our Mentor Support Scheme, which partners new foster carers with more experienced foster carers
- Free training for fostering support networks. (Your family and friends are welcome to join any of the training Lika offers.)
- Access to Lika’s Support Workers, depending on the level of need for the young person
- Access to Lika’s Educational Consultant, who can offer ideas and advocacy in supporting young people to achieve in education
- Help from Lika’s Systemic Social Work Practitioners/Therapists, who can undertake skilled direct work without waiting lists for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS)
- 14 to 21 days of paid respite (depending on complexity) to recharge your batteries and have some space for self-care.
If you’re in south or east London and you’re interested in becoming a foster carer, give the helpful team at Lika a call on 020 8667 2111. We’re here to answer all your questions.
We’re in the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, and Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea.